Dale Earnhardt Jr opened his 2006 victory account at the tenth time of asking on Saturday night under the lights at Richmond International Raceway with his first on-merit win in more than a full season.
The driver of the #8 Budweiser DEI Chevrolet may have won at Chicagoland last year in a fortuitous fuel mileage battle but in reality, this was Earnhardt Jr's first ?real' win since the tail end of the 2004 campaign.
Proving to be a hugely popular winner as usual, Earnhardt Jr and his Tony Eury Jr led crew were able to turn a poor car into a front running car and then out fox the dominant car on the night set themselves on the road to victory lane.
The tenth round of the 2006 Nextel Cup championship, played out on the invitingly wide three-quarter mile D-shaped Richmond oval, seemed to be the domain of Kevin Harvick and the #29 Richard Childress Racing team. Starting eighth and looking to complete the weekend sweep, Harvick wasted little time in getting to the front and while Earnhardt Jr found himself heading to pit road for adjustments under the first caution period on lap 19, Harvick was carving his way towards polesitter and early leader Greg Biffle.
Harvick took the lead for the first time just shy of the 50-lap mark and proved to be nearly impossible to live with for the following 250 laps, keeping the rest of the field at arms length and only rarely looking threatened.
Biffle initially led the chase but was caught out by a green flag pitstop on lap 177 that resulted in him going a lap down to the leaders, which left Earnhardt Jr in second after a fine drive through the field following his early stop. Now with a car that would let him drive high and low around Richmond's sweeping but relatively flat turns Earnhardt Jr was able to keep Harvick in sight but didn't have enough to mount a direct challenge.
The turning point of the race came on lap 286 when the yellow flag waved for the eighth time as Earnhardt Jr's DEI teammate Martin Truex Jr suffered an engine failure. Not only was Biffle in position to take advantage of the ?Lucky Dog' pass and get back onto the lead lap, Harvick elected to stay out while Earnhardt Jr and the rest of the lead lap cars chose to pit even though it had only been some 30 laps since their last stop.
Harvick was now on the back foot for the first time but such was the pace of the #29 Chevrolet he was able to keep Earnhardt Jr, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin behind him for nearly 40 laps following the lap 291 restart.
In the end it was hometown favourite and series rookie Hamlin who was the first to get his nose ahead of Harvick following some breathtaking four-wide racing between the top quartet. Earnhardt Jr made several previous attempts at the lead but was rebuffed every time by Harvick and chose to drop back behind Hamlin when things began getting physical between the two.